She frequently stumbles when reaching for the right word in conversation, and don’t bother trying to talk to her when she doesn’t have her hearing aid in. Still, for a 91-year-old, Vera Joseph is a remarkable woman. Based on playwright Amy Herzog’s own grandmother, she is the central character of 4000 Miles, an acclaimed off-Broadway work and Pulitzer Prize finalist from 15 years ago and, now, the season opener at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
The title refers to the length of the cross-country bicycle journey that Vera’s grandson, Leo, 70 years her junior, has just completed. He arrives at her Greenwich Village apartment, unannounced and unexpected, at 3 a.m. one morning. They barely know one another, but he is family, so she welcomes him — well, as much as she can without her dentures in — and they begin to narrow the generational gulf that is as metaphorically wide as the ride he has just completed.
4000 Miles is primarily character-driven and Herzog has written two terrific characters. And in the Dramaworks production directed with skill and sensitivity by J. Barry Lewis, they are brought to vivid life by Broadway veteran Patricia Conolly and Miami native Gabriell Salgado. Her Vera is as feisty as she is endearing, a bit frail and paranoid, apt to accuse Leo of stealing things she has simply misplaced. Salgado is physically imposing, yet his Leo is a gentle soul, despite the emotional pain he carries with him like his ever-present backpack. When they stand side-by-side or grip one another in a hug, the Mutt and Jeff contrast is a striking visual symbol of their many differences.
Still, they are both loners, looking to make a human connection, but unsure how to go about it. Along the way, they rub each other the wrong way, try each other’s patience, yet their underlying similarities gradually surface. Written with a specificity that becomes universal, it seems likely that theatergoers will identify with one of these two lost souls and perhaps both of them.
Two sequences stand out along the way. In one, Vera and Leo’s conversation has a curious offbeat quality, eventually explained when we realize they are blithely high on marijuana. In the other, Leo bares his inner self relating a traumatic and tragic event that occurred during his bike trip. The monologue is stunning and it seems to leave Vera speechless, until she tops it with a punchline too surprising to reveal here. It is a bravura moment, but most of 4000 Miles is consciously muted, moving towards a détente and a healing without big dramatic flourishes.
Vera and Leo are the play’s focus, though they are not the play’s only characters. In an effort to further flesh out Leo’s history, we are introduced to girlfriend Bee (Stephanie Vazquez), who had backed out suddenly from the bike trip. Their relationship is now strained and headed for a conclusion. On the rebound, Leo goes out clubbing and brings back to the apartment Amanda (Isabella Chang), hoping for some casual sex. Their sofa lunges and parries make for amusing physical comedy, but the scene is a mere tangent to the play’s narrative.
Like the production’s entire cast, scenic designer Bert Scott is making his Dramaworks debut. He provides Vera with a spacious, long lived-in apartment — rent-controlled, we learn — full of grandmotherly details. Longtime resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe comes up with understated but character-rich clothes and Roger Arnold’s sound design includes the aural effects of lower Manhattan for added authenticity. In all, another first-rate production design, a Dramaworks hallmark.
As the company’s play selections go, 4000 Miles is hardly among its most profound picks. But Herzog is a subtle writer to be reckoned with and we may not see better performances than those by Conolly and Salgado all season.
4000 MILES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Oct. 30. $84. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.